On wonder, and grief

Other people’s words about … this amazing world

Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.)

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

I’ve found myself at a loss for words to write in here recently. The loss of words carries over to images, too, and therefore to other media like my Instagram account — I haven’t taken a photograph for weeks. I haven’t even been able to pick up a pen and write in my own diary.

I am, in general, someone who is readily able to immerse myself in the wonder of the natural world. The photographs I take and post, here and on Instagram, of the scrub and the sea and the sky and the sand and the sunset, are the physical manifestation of this. The habit of wondering is one I taught myself, years ago, as a way to manage the bouts of anxiety and sadness I’ve always experienced. Call it mindfulness, call it relaxation therapy, call it diversion, call it meditation, it’s what I do: it’s how I move through the world. It’s how I stay present, how I stay humble.

But since the end of last year, ever since the fires began raging here, I haven’t been able to respond that way to the world around me: to access that wonder. In fact, wonder feels frivolous — insensitive, tasteless — when the world around you, the living world, is burning, burning.

Here in South Australia, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had milder weather, and even some rainfall. As a result, the fires, for now, are largely under control, though when the heat returns — as it will — so, I think, may the fires.

But in the wake of those fires, the land in those areas has burned to nothingness. The trees and the animals have been killed. There is nothing left. There is nothing to wonder at.

What I feel now, instead of wonder, is rage and grief. These fires should not have happened. For thousands of years, before 1788, the people who lived here managed the land, and they managed fire. They co-existed with the natural world. In the last two hundred years, we have lost that ability, and with it we are losing the land.

There are books you can read about this, if you want to know more — books that were written well before this year’s fires, books that studied the past and made warnings about the future. I would recommend, in particular, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (about which, you can read more here).

There are also things you can do, right now — organisations to which you can donate your money, or your time, or your talent. If you are an Australian, there are choices you can make today, as you go about your daily life, about how you spend any disposable income you might have — for example, where you buy your food, where you go on holiday — so that your money goes towards local communities affected by the fires (for example, #bookthemout and Empty Esky). I hope that, though movements such as these are aimed at helping the people affected by the fires, they will also, as a natural consequence, help the other living beings affected by the fires. By contributing to these areas, you contribute to all the lives within those areas.

I would add: do these things now. Please. But also, do them forever.

Bushfire prevention is a long-term strategy. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a political choice. If we are to change the course of the future in Australia, if we are to change the way we live in our environment, if we are to learn to co-exist in this Australian environment, then we have to change things forever.

Until we manage to do this, I, like many other Australians, will continue to feel rage and grief instead of wonder.

Burning, breaking

Other people’s words about … climate change

For the very first time, the wetlands are also on fire. Old Gondwana growth, ancient forests are aflame. This is not the forest that regenerates; what is being lost will never return. It is not hard to see that something is deeply, palpably wrong. All winter drought conditions have intensified; the building fire skipped the river, which should have been a natural break. There is practically no water left; the Shoalhaven is so parched that the town will run dry within months.

From ‘Mourning a Disappearing World as Australia Burns’
by Jessica Friedmann
Read the whole article here

Happy New Year to all my readers. I wish you all a joyous 2020.

I’m writing this post on a day in which bushfires continue to rage uncontrolled across much of my country. I know that this story is being covered by the media, and so there is not much I can say that you yourselves probably haven’t read or thought already. The article I’ve quoted in today’s post is worth reading, though, in addition to whatever else you’ve read or heard: I am in accordance with much of what Friedmann writes.

All I will say is this: it has astonished me for years that I live in a country where it is possible for politicians to deny that climate change is occurring, that I live in a country (a world?) where apathy and bluster are accepted forms of political leadership.

My country is burning. It has been getting ready to burn like this for years. It breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart.

Holiday views, though the fires were already burning when I took this photograph.
View from the Kangaroo Island ferry, 29 December 2019

Out & about: spring flowers

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

I’ve just spent a week down at our house at Aldinga Beach on holiday.

Common (variegated) groundsel

I had planned to go running as much as I could, but due to illness, in the end I had to opt for a gentler form of movement.

Vanilla lily

And that turned out to be not such a bad thing.

Red parrot pea

The sun was gentle and soft most days, though the wind felt distinctly chilly. In the Scrub, native flowers were blossoming everywhere, in every colour: yellow, purple, orange, white, pink, blue.

Rice flowers

Paper flowers

Blue Grass Lily (Caesia calliantha)

Even the parts of plants that weren’t flowering seemed exotic and gorgeously coloured.

Twining vines (devil’s twine)

Crimson branches

Bees darted about, drinking nectar.

Bee on a coast beard heath plant (or a rice flower?)
with curling shoot

And though they’re not pictured here, roos observed me as I walked the sandy trail, while whistlers burbled hidden in the trees and a frogmouth boomed in the distance.

Yellow bush peas
(that’s what I call them, but apparently they’re called common eutaxia)

Spring has truly arrived.

Snatched phrases: changing world

‘I felt I was a caterpillar changing colour,
precariously balanced,
moving from one species of leaf to another.’

From ‘Warlight’
by Michael Ondaatje

In the passage above, the narrator is an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood; the story is, among other things, a story of his passage into the adult world.

The lone grevillea bush in flower at the winter solstice

I love the image Michael Ondaatje uses in this passage — not the stereotypical image of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which would have worked, but this more intricate, layered, thoughtful image of the caterpillar … still a caterpillar, undoubtedly, but a caterpillar that changes as it moves from one world to the next.

Anthills: they appear one day in the Scrub, and disappear the next

I don’t have any photos of caterpillars, but I took the pictures accompanying today’s post in the Aldinga Scrub during the week of the winter solstice …

Unknown mistletoe on banksia bush

… a time of year when we all, to some extent, mark the passing of time and of the seasons, and of the ever-changing natural world about us …

Grasstrees: not yet in flower, but standing sentinel nonetheless

Out and about: autumn

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Autumn arrived in the vineyards in mid-May. One weekend in the last week of May or so, I went for a brief wander on one of my favourite tracks, which skirts the wetlands, the Scrub, the vineyards and the farms.

It was one of those autumn days when the sky changes every moment that you look up at it, and with it the light. One moment the sky was blue and the grass shone bright and green; the next, the sun disappeared behind clouds, and the sky darkened, and the grass turned a pale, sombre green.

As I took the photos you see in this post, I became aware of stinging sensations at my ankles and wrists. We’d had rain overnight, and the ground was damp, though the temperature was mild. Mosquitoes were everywhere, biting, biting. I kept stopping to scratch: my ankles, my wrists, my hands. Still, it was peaceful and green.

Can you see the willy wagtail perched on the wire fencing in the photograph above? It darted about as I wandered the track, zigzagging and dipping and feinting, the way willy wagtails do. There were fairy wrens on the path, too, but I didn’t manage to capture them.

Next time, maybe … ?

Out and about: dragons & damsels

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

I wasn’t expecting anything special on my most recent walk in the Scrub. It was mid-February, a warm Sunday at the end of a warm week, after a very warm January. I figured everything in the Scrub — bushes, birds, animals — would be going through what I always think of as mid-summer somnolence.

But things in the Scrub were thriving. Passing sea box bushes resplendent with red berries (above) and sheoak trees whose branches were clustered with woody fruit (below), I walked south, towards the little lagoon just behind the boundary fence that runs along Acacia Terrace.

Damselflies skimmed the (somewhat scummy) surface of the water, and a pair of ducks paddled amongst the reeds in the lagoon. As I followed the curve of the bank around to the other side of the pond, I saw a family of kangaroos lazing in the shade of the nearby bushes, one of them poised upright, ears pricked, standing sentry.

There was a bush in flower that I’d never seen before, too — I think it was a hakea, though I’m not entirely sure. Its white flowers reflected the bright summer sun so that the petals seemed to glow.

And just outside the Scrub, perched on an upright stump by the side of the road, a little dragon caught my eye.

He (or she, I’m not sure) was very still, so still that I thought at first he was an oddly shaped twig sticking out at the top of the stump. We regarded each other silently for quite some time — I, fascinated, he, less so — before I turned to go.

I swear I could feel that dragon’s eyes on me all the way home …

Tentacles

Other people’s words about … urbanisation

Here, town finished, and countryside began. You crossed over, from pavements and shops, towards copses and streams, and meadows full of grazing cows. The streets and the fields seemed to push at each other, the city trying to sprawl further out and the fields resisting. The planners and architects and merchants would obviously win. What force had buttercups and earthworms and cabbages against the need of human beings for dwelling places, against developers’ chances to make money? Alive as a strange creature in an aquarium, the city stretched out its tentacles, grew and swelled, gobbling the pastures and hedgerows that lay in its path. Fields were bought, and new rows of houses built, and then the process repeated.

from ‘The Walworth Beauty
by Michèle Roberts

When we moved to Aldinga Beach almost twenty years ago, it was still — just, almost — a country town. Ever since then, the city has been creeping up on it. Sometimes I think the encroaching suburbs are like an oil spill, seeping down the slopes of the hills from the north, all the way into the Scrub. And so, though the rural world we live in at Aldinga Beach is very different from the nineteenth-century English one Michèle Roberts describes in the passage above, still her words seem apposite.

But the Scrub is still alive and I still go wandering through it, and whenever I’m wandering there, I feel hope. I took the pictures in today’s post one morning last week, in late July. Though the sky was grey and the temperature was chilly, the first breath of spring had wafted over the Scrub, as I hope you’ll see below.

In flower that morning were flame heath bushes …

… and …

… grass trees.

I saw the first shy showing …

… of guinea flowers:

There were green shoots everywhere …

… after the recent rains.

And there were other plants budding, too. Like this:

And this:

And this:

In the southwest corner of the Scrub, where the land slopes down towards the coast, the kangaroos were snoozing …

… although they weren’t best pleased when I disturbed them:

Further on, I caught a flash of gold from the corner of my eye. It was a golden whistler darting about the branches of a tree beside the sandy path.

Whistlers don’t sing at this time of the year, but their plumage is as glorious as ever (though unfortunately faintly blurred in my photos):

So, yes, the tentacles of the city are reaching out here in South Australia.

But still, the last remnants of the pre-urbanised world like Aldinga Scrub live on.

The beast

Snatched phrases (on being present)

Do the anxiety. Then leave it there. This is our challenge.

from ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story about Anxiety
by Sarah Wilson

Simple words, huh? They apply to all manner of ills, I think — not just anxiety. They are about staying in the present: doing the hard stuff when it comes up, not questioning it or agonising over it … and then leaving it behind and moving on.

There are no solutions to anxiety out there, Wilson argues further on: no cures or fixes. So you just do it …

… and then you leave it.

This makes great sense to me.

Today’s photos? They’re from one of my latest wanders in the Scrub, a couple of weeks ago: mid-March. It was a still, grey afternoon, and when I first began to walk, the colours seemed drab, and the birdsong was muted, and the air felt unkind and cold.

But as I wandered on, I began to see a few flowers despite the greyness, and I came upon a kangaroo, which stiffened at my bumbling approach and then bounded away. I heard the sea murmur somewhere through and beyond the thicket of trees, and a magpie began to carol, low and soft.

I had done my day, and I had left it there, and things were fine. Just fine.

Inhabitant

Other people’s words about … noticing

Over the last year I have discovered a passion for birds and wildflowers in particular, along with the ever-present kangaroos. I love the texture of bark, the colour of leaves and mosses, I’m utterly fascinated with the fact that I can walk around our small patch of natural bushland each day and find something I’ve never noticed before. Or find something I have noticed before, but it catches my eye for a different reason.

from ‘Fifteen Acres: A Small Slice of Paradise‘ blog
by Lisa from Central Victoria, Australia

I came across Lisa’s blog only recently and instantly realised she is a kindred blogger. Her blog documents her growing understanding of, knowledge about, and love for all the species of native flora and fauna that live on her block of land in rural Central Victoria. I get the feeling that Lisa has learned about her patch of land in the same way I’ve learned about Aldinga Scrub — by walking through it day after day and simply observing.

Like Lisa, I didn’t expect to become fascinated by the plants and creatures living on my doorstep. It just happened. I didn’t even know about Aldinga Scrub until after we moved to Aldinga Beach: it was the beach — with its beautiful cliffs, its blue waters, its fish-inhabited and bird-dotted reef, its wide sands — which initially attracted me.

The first time I walked through the Scrub, I was just curious. I had heard that it was the last remnant of original coastal bushland in South Australia, and so I wanted to see what it was like. A year later, going through another phase of feeling inexplicably agitated and uncomfortable in my own skin, I decided to try walking through the Scrub more often. I thought that, if I made the effort to look outwards at the world around me instead of looking inwards into my own seething internal landscape, I might find solace.

And I did.

A small kind of miracle happened as I walked through the Scrub over and over. As I wandered, I began to wonder. As I wondered, I stopped. As I stopped, I observed. As I observed, I noticed, as Lisa puts it. And then, at last, I started to see and to learn.

Something else happened, too. I began to inhabit the world around me during those walks. Inhabitation — it’s a powerful word. Maybe it’s pretentious. Maybe it’s corny? And yet that’s how it feels.

It never stops, this seeing, learning, wondering, inhabiting. That’s another kind of miracle.

The pictures in this post are photographs I’ve taken over the years on my walks through the Scrub. Here you can see it in its many moods, its many seasons, its many tempers. I don’t know if my photographs can convey the wonder I felt as I took them, or the remembered sense of discovery I feel now when I return to them, but I hope that they convey, at least, the deep joy that my wandering has brought me.

That’s the thing, you see — noticing is both a humble and a joyful process. It’s a privilege to inhabit this kind of joy.

Where song begins

Other people’s words about … birdcalls

A bird calls with a sound like a pot being scraped,
and the moist air is cool on our skin.

from ‘The Collaborator
by Margaret Leroy

I love the way that worlds sometimes collide in the space of a few words. What kind of bird is Margaret Leroy describing here? I’m not sure: the characters in her book live on the Channel Islands during the Occupation in World War II — which is a long way from Australia.

And yet when I read her phrase, I thought instantly of our native red wattlebirds.

Wattlebirds (from a photo of a sheet of Earth Greetings wrapping paper: https://www.earthgreetings.com.au)
Wattlebirds
(from a photo of a sheet of Earth Greetings wrapping paper: https://www.earthgreetings.com.au)

Australian birds are known for their startlingly loud calls. In fact, biologist Tim Low has devoted a whole book to this theme. In Where Song Began, he proposes that Australian plants produce such an abundance of nectar that some birds — honeyeaters in particular, including wattlebirds — have evolved with strong aggressive tendencies, which enable them to fight over and defend their sources of nectar. Their loud, harsh calls are a part of that aggression. (You can find a brief summary of this argument here.)

I have struggled for years to come up with words to describe the calls that red wattlebirds make, here on my blog and elsewhere. They are a mixture of chuckles, coughs, clicks, screeches, rattles, squawks and whistles: you can hear a sample on the website Birds in Backyards, which provides a link to a recording on this factsheet. (Click on ‘Top 40 Bird Songs’ at the top of the factsheet, and then click on the ‘Soundfile’ for the red wattlebird, which is the fourteenth bird on the list. But turn your volume up first. Wattlebirds are very noisy.)

Wattlebird on a wire
Wattlebird on a wire

The recording misses something, though, as do my words. Neither effort really conveys the sound of the wattlebird’s call accurately: somehow, Margaret Leroy’s words come closer.

Serendipity, perhaps? Now, whenever I hear a wattlebird call, I will think of these words.